The art of poisoning as a means to stealthily get rid of enemies dates back as far as the ancient Sumerians (roughly 4,500 years BC) who even worshipped the goddess Gula, patroness of charms, spells and poisons. It was in the Middle Ages however that this method of murder really took off. During the Medieval and Renaissance eras in Europe poisoning was so widespread, especially among the nobility, that it was practically fashionable. Over in the East, arsenic was being developed into a potent and undetectable poison that could kill in tiny quantities, and was to become a key ingredient in many alleged murders, particularly among the ruling families of Renaissance Italy.
The Italians were so fond of poisoning one another that a guild of poisoners was formed in 1419 to take on contracts of murder and poisoning was considered an art form, albeit a dark one. It became so widespread that nobility all over Europe grew increasingly paranoid, employing poison tasters and wearing talismans to ward off evil intentions. Perfectly natural deaths from illnesses such as peritonitis and tumors were attributed to poison and investigated by paranoid officials. The high and holy of Rome were far from immune, with regular allegations of poisoning being aimed at each other by Cardinals and even Popes, in particular the notorious Pope Alexander, otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia. His daughter, the infamous Lucrezia, reportedly had a special ‘poison ring’ made for her, with a small secret compartment in which she could keep a few drops of the mysterious Borgia poison, cantarella, should she need to murder someone at short notice. Lest this grand tradition be lost, here are a few tips on how a true Renaissance villain might go about poisoning his or her enemies.
Pick Your Poison
Arsenic was known as the ‘king of poisons’ by the time the Renaissance and Late Middle Ages were in full swing and it may be just as accurate to dub it ‘the poison of kings’ as it was a favorite among nobility and royalty at the time who were regularly attempting to do away with one another. Marie Louise, wife of Carlos II of Spain, was successfully killed by arsenic poisoning, and it is believed by most modern day pharmacologists to be one of the key ingredients used by the infamous Borgia family. Pope Alexander and his children, Lucrezia and Cesare, were a legend in their own lifetime, and a dinner party invitation from the family was enough to fill their contemporaries with horror. In my latest novella Borgia Fever, I’ve used the Borgia family’s most deadly weapon against them…Of course, none of the alleged murders were ever proved, but then that is the beauty of arsenic poisoning; at the time it was virtually undetectable. Arsenic was a favorite poison of that other notorious family, the Medici’s. Duke Cosimo de Medici in particular invested a great deal of time and money in searching out the perfect poison, and Queen Catherine de Medici of France helped bring the Italian fascination with poisoning to Paris.
Arsenic, although popular, was not always easy to come by and there were other alternatives that could be equally as effective. Belladonna, from the plant of Deadly Nightshade, was used as a cosmetic in small doses, but was lethal in larger ones, and was popularly available for ‘medicinal’ purposes. In the 14th century the ergot fungus, which grows naturally on rye and other cereals, caused outbreaks of ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, a lethal disease with some gruesome symptoms including gangrenous rot of the flesh, convulsions and burning and blistering of the skin. Although ergot was believed to be sometimes used deliberately, it wouldn’t have been the most subtle way of dispatching someone. Anyone struggling to pick a suitable poison could always consult the Book of Venoms, written in 1424 by Santes de Ardoynis, who was in fact a monk.
Although the obvious ways to administer poison was in food or wine, assassins of the time liked to be creative, especially when potential targets began employing poison tasters. The aforementioned Duke Cosimo had crossbows with poisoned arrow tips prepared for him by the Duke of Alva, and the Sforza family of Milan reportedly had a cloth infected with the plague virus sent to the Borgia Pope (it was intercepted). An Italian woman known as Toffana in the sixteenth century sold a cosmetic to women that contained lethal, hidden doses of arsenic. These women obviously knew what they were buying, as many of them allegedly became merry widows shortly after their purchase. A murder attempt on Queen Elizabeth I of England involved an opium-derived poison administered to her saddle before she went hunting.
Thinking creatively meant that potential assassins could target more than one person. In 1561 in Seville a group of Lutherans were suspected of poisoning a whole well in an attempt to kill dozens of enemy Catholics in one fell swoop.
Keep It in the Family
Although the nobility of the day and kings and queens in particular were often targeted by rival families or monarchies, some of the most dramatic poison attempts of the day were as a result of family feuds. Don Carlos, a deformed sadist who was witnessed torturing young girls and burning rodents alive, attempted to poison his father Philip II of Spain in 1568 and in retaliation King Philip had Carlos imprisoned and recommended his ‘dietary intake’ not be monitored. In other words, he was slowly poisoned to death.
In 1587 the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco, son of Cosimo de Medici (yes, him again) died of malaria. At least that was the official line but the symptoms were very unlike malaria and very similar to arsenic poisoning. His wife Bianca also died at the same time and in the same way. The rumors of the time and indeed the general consensus among historians today, is that they were poisoned by Francesco’s brother Ferdinando, who then took over the ducal throne. In 2007 forensic experts tested the remains in Francesco’s tomb and indeed found evidence of death by arsenic. Bianca’s remains were never found.
The method of choice for any discerning Renaissance assassin would certainly seem to be poison. A word of caution however; do try not to get caught. The best way to ensure this would be to pay an assassin or even servant to administer the toxin. Punishments for assassination attempts were harsh and brutal and of course it would usually be the poisoner themselves who were convicted rather than the noble who ordered it. They rarely wanted to get their own hands dirty; although female poisoners such as Catherine de Medici and Lucrezia Borgia were rumored to be more hands-on in their approach.
The assassin responsible for Elizabeth Tudor’s poisoned saddle was publicly hung, drawn and quartered, no doubt after having been viciously tortured, and most other attempted murderers were treated similarly. The European ruling families had some ingenious methods of torture that would be a far more painful end than a poisoned glass of wine.